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Etiquette Today

Good manners are hard to find.

Mar 11, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 25 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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Then we have a few modern peculiarities of separation and divorce, including a section on "The Social Position of a Man Who 'Comes Out of the Closet', Ends His Marriage and Produces a Boyfriend." Morgan recognizes the stigma attached to this phenomenon, but he advises tolerance, or at least forbearance, endorsing the reaction of one woman whose husband left her for a "male Swedish lift engineer": "I would rather this happen than him having a sordid secret life, and quite frankly, because it's a man, I don't feel as if my role has been completely usurped by another woman." Now that's noblesse oblige.

But the last half of the book, titled "Social Life," probably has more to teach us, as good behavior doesn't differ too much in civilized, or would-be civilized, circles. Since we no longer have maiden aunts to tell us how to phrase an invitation to a dinner or cocktail party, we probably need to look over the proper forms of invitation and calling card. The chapter on the spoken word, though, is even more helpful. Here Morgan's advice serves where our taste and tact break down. Our sense of savoir-faire is, after all, a little frayed these days.

THE FIRST rule to observe at a mixer, for example, is to look other people in the eye, laugh at unfunny jokes, and endure awkwardness for the sake of social harmony. "'Cocktail party eyes', i.e., glancing obviously over your companion's shoulder, to spy who else is at the party, are rude and hurtful." Morgan recalls the sadness of an older woman friend who observed, "I have really come to the conclusion that after a certain age, women become invisible." (Shame on somebody.) Humor needs delicate handling at a party. The "brick-dropper" needs to watch his tongue. One man, a stranger to others engaged in a conversation, let drop that all students at a particular university were either "footballers or whores," a bad tactic if you don't know the folks you're talking to. When another man present said that his wife had attended that institution, the first man filled the breach: "Oh, really. What position does she play?" Very brave, but it wouldn't work with joyless types.

EVEN BORES must be borne. In fact, they may be helpful. "Bores, although hardly a social asset, can be socially soothing, as they are usually so caught up with their own thoughts and words that others can switch off and momentarily rest their brains from conversation," which certainly seems a gentleman's expedient. How does Morgan advise us to get rid of them? Just say, "This is so interesting, but I do feel that I am monopolizing you." Walk away and the true bore won't have the faintest idea of what just happened.

Morgan tells us all we need to know: If we digest and live by these rules of thumb, the rest of our lives--or our social lives anyway--will probably fall into place. His dictates on personal relationships are merely codified consideration, though these are not always automatically understood, especially now. But even in the modern world there ought to be a code for dating, and he provides one, including the proper etiquette to be used by a woman not yet willing to invite a date into her house or apartment at evening's end. We also learn how to introduce "significant others" (see "Terms for Lovers") to our friends. And you wish to break up? Do so face-to-face: The "telephone call--or worse, the fax message--is quite inappropriate." (If you lifted an eyebrow of surprise at that last directive, you may need this book.)

While Morgan's ideas for handling private life are about consideration, those for behaving in public are about common sense. Proper variations exist among the ways we should act in the street, in a store, or on an airplane. And the section on behavior in restaurants could be pulled out and sold as a pamphlet. How many of us know how to order wine properly? Were we ever taught to moderate our voices so as not to be heard at neighboring tables? (We lack a separate heading here called "Personal Space.") How about leaving our dining partners stranded while we talk to other people recognized across the room? (See "Spotting Chums and Table-Hopping.") Just how do we complain about a meal without making perfect asses of ourselves?